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Recipe organizing

(article, Melanie Mesaros)

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Few of us cook from memory alone; we need cookbooks, recipe cards, and tearsheets from newspapers and magazines to help us along. But using our brains to keep track of all that printed matter can be trickier than an unbroken omelette. Even the professionals, when pressed, will admit that, frankly, they don’t necessarily know where Grandma’s peanut-butter cookie recipe is right now. 

“I think you've made a terrible mistake in interviewing me,” confesses baking guru Dorie Greenspan, looking around her home office. “I'm surrounded by a trillion, maybe two trillion, cookbooks and stacks of magazines with Post-its.” 

Greenspan, whose most recent (and highly organized) cookbook is Baking: From My Home to Yours, has her own idiosyncratic system of organizing her recipes. And that's how she likes it, inefficient as it might seem: folders for recipes “to try” that she totes on weekends to her home in the Connecticut countryside and notebooks full of lists and handwritten ideas that nurture her book ideas from start to finish.

“I find I'm more organized in my head,” she says. 

Standolyn Robertson, a professional organizer and the president of the National Association of Professional Organizers, says it's not uncommon for her to go into a home and find a scene similar to Greenspan's — except that most of her clients don't have a system at all. Piles of recipes clipped from magazines are stuffed into boxes, while newspapers and cookbooks, some decades old, clutter up valuable kitchen space. 

[%image promo-image float=left width=425 credit="Photo: iStockphoto/cglade" caption="Is it time to organize your recipes?"]

The goal, Robertson says, is to figure out what you really want to keep (and what you don’t) before arranging it all into a usable system. She likes Greenspan’s habit of using a folder just for untested recipes — because if you don't love a recipe, it's not worth keeping around. “Try it,” she says. “If it's a good recipe, then add it to your collection.” If not, into the recycling it goes. “I'm not one for copying stuff on a 3-by-5 card unless it's a family favorite,” she says. 

Some of Robertson’s suggestions fall into the less-is-more category (if there’s just one recipe you like from a cookbook, photocopy it or scan it into a computer before donating the cookbook to charity), while others focus on the client’s individual needs (if you’re trying to lose weight, get rid of those dessert books). “Make sure your recipe collection supports your lifestyle,” she says.

Expandable file folders, Robertson says, are simple tools that can help people get a handle on the chaos. “I take my favorite recipe book and make tabs based on all the categories — breads, desserts, etc.,” she says. “Then I have all these pockets labeled like a table of contents in a cookbook. I always make one for entertaining, too.” 

Digital storage is another great way to cut down on paper storage. Use a spreadsheet, scan in favorites, or try a program like Paper Tiger, which allows you to search for ingredient keywords. You can also create your own directory of paper recipes housed elsewhere. Include items like “cherry pie” or “grandma's stuffing” on your master list, then explain where they can be found, such as in a specific cookbook or recipe box.  

Peter Berley, a New York chef, restaurateur, and author of The Flexitarian Table, is a self-described modernist in his approach to cooking. He rarely works from recipes at all; instead, he focuses on technique, style, and formulas that only come from years behind a stove. “Recipes to me are like baggage, and I don't want to fill my head with recipes,” he says.

But Berley does still reach for his favorite cookbooks — a collection small enough to be kept orderly on office shelving — when he's in need of inspiration. Magazines serve a similar purpose. “I opened Food & Wine recently, \[and\] I found a recipe for rice salad,” he recalls. “I'll skim it and then make my own recipe; the techniques, the ideas will spark something.” 

But not everyone has Berley's minimalistic attitude. Nick Malgieri has been collecting cookbooks since he was 12. Now writing his ninth book, Modern Baker, Malgieri estimates he has 8,000 cookbooks, including some rare manuscripts from the 19th century. “They are almost on every wall of my apartment,” he says. “There’s Italian, French, old and valuable, herbs and gardening.”


h1. Five organizing tips


# Go through your cookbooks. If you regularly only cook a few recipes from a book, save only those recipes (photocopies or electronic versions) and sell or donate the book.
# Go through your recipe clippings. Put those you adore on 3-by-5 cards or in your computer. Put those you really want to try in a "test" folder. Recycle the rest.
# Go through your recipe cards. Save only those recipes you love, for sentimental, taste, or other reasons.
# Go through your cooking magazines. Do you really cook from them all, or just a few issues?
# If you put all your favorite recipes on your computer, be sure to back up your computer regularly, and keep paper copies.


Malgieri spends more time playing with his own recipes than cooking from his books, but he sees great value in having an enormous collection to draw on. “In no other field do people derive what is new from what is old,” he says.

For Greenspan, having stacks of books is, quite simply, comforting. “When I'm planning a dinner for friends and have time, I think there's nothing like sitting with a book,” she says. Looking up recipes online may be faster, but doesn't provide the same satisfaction as poring over a glossy, well-worn cookbook. 

Greenspan likens the experience to looking up a word in the dictionary. “You can't help yourself — you look at the word after it or before it,” she says. “I feel the same way about cookbooks. They inspire.” 

Many cherished recipes, of course, do more than inspire; they’re salted with memories and sugared with associations. They’re part of a family's story. Greenspan's favorites, of course, have been preserved for posterity in her cookbooks. “There’s something reassuring about having collections of recipes, books, stuff in magazines,” she says. “It's like having a stuffed animal around.”  

Despite her due diligence in streamlining her clients’ collections, professional organizer Robertson gives careful consideration to culinary treasures: anything in grandma's handwriting, for example, or recipes truly loved by the family. Robertson cites a culinary treasure of her own: the small, square cake known only to her children as Honor Roll Cake.

“I made it to celebrate anyone who made the honor roll at school,” she explains. “It was the only time we made it.”
The cake became special to Robertson’s kids for two reasons: it marked an accomplishment, and there was never enough for seconds. Recipes like this get a more lasting place in Robertson's collection; she will either bind the recipes in a book with page protectors, or keep handwritten 3-by-5 cards in a decorative box. 


h1. Featured recipe


And she’s not afraid of getting those treasures messy. Neither is Greenspan. 

“There is nothing that makes me happier than seeing one of my books with butter on it, a chocolate spot, or dog-eared corners,” Greenspan says.

p(bio). Melanie Mesaros is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon, who has worked for ABC and Fox News Radio.

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